Which player has been the biggest surprise in a good way this season?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: I didn’t think Max Domi was a 30-goal scorer. He’s on pace for 36 goals. I didn’t think Max Domi was a point-per-game player. He has 31 in his first 30 games of this season.
I didn’t think Max Domi could be an effective center, nor did I like the idea of the Montreal Canadiens solving that deficiency in their lineup by attempting to convert a winger into one. He’s been an effective center — as long as we aren’t considering faceoff winning percentage (44.1) as a bellwether of success — and has solved one of the quintessential problems during Marc Bergevin‘s run as general manager. I thought Alex Galchenyuk would blossom in the desert for the Arizona Coyotes, and they would probably win the Max Domi deal. He has three goals in 21 games. Domi’s likely an all-star. I am very, very surprised.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: Few players have been a pleasant delight quite like Jeff Skinner, who is almost the perfect avatar for the plucky Buffalo Sabres. We always knew Skinner, a former Calder Trophy winner, had it in him. But he’s one of those guys whose career seems to be flying by. This is his ninth NHL season. For the first eight of them in Carolina, Skinner was a quiet, consistent 20- to 30-goal scorer. In Buffalo, he leveled up into a guy who is chasing down Alex Ovechkin and Patrik Laine for the Rocket Richard Trophy (he’s just two goals behind Ovechkin’s league-leading 20). Through the weekend, he’s on a point-per-game pace (his previous career high was 0.80 in 2016-17).
A lot of this has to do with his chemistry with Jack Eichel, but maybe there’s a bit of revenge factor, feeling slighted after the team that drafted him parted ways before he was due for a big pay day next summer. Whatever it is, the resurgence could not come at a better time for the Sabres, or for Skinner, whose value as a pending free agent continues to rise.
Sachin Chandan, ESPN the Magazine researcher: Make no mistake, Mikko Rantanen blossomed into a top-line player last season, but his offensive pace this season is the biggest surprise for me. Rantanen has 48 points through 30 games, putting him on pace for 131 for the season. This would be the highest season total since 1995-96, when Mario Lemieux had 161. It’s clear that he has magnetic chemistry with Nathan MacKinnon; Rantanen has assisted on 19 of his goals. To put Rantanen’s breakout into perspective, Bovada sportsbooks releases preseason odds for the Art Ross Trophy, and Rantanen was not one of the 36 players listed.
Which player has been the biggest surprise in a bad way this season?
Wyshynski: In deciding my most surprising disappointment, I established one personal ground rule: It couldn’t be a disappointment due to injury, basically because I didn’t want to pile on Matt Murray. Instead, I’ll go with a someone that’s appeared in 30 games this season: Jeff Carter of the Los Angeles Kings.
Having Carter for a full season was one of the reasons the Kings were supposed to build on their playoff appearance last season. Instead, they’re horrible. Like, ‘get your coach fired’ horrible. Carter is a party to that. He has six goals and nine assists, the lowest points-per-game average of his career. Only two of those six goals are at even strength, which is just astounding when you consider 21 of his 32 goals scored in 2016-17 were at even strength. Matt Luff scored more 5-on-5 goals (4) in 15 games than Jeff Carter has in 30 games. He may not be the season’s most disappointing player — what’s up, Valeri Nichushkin? — but I expected so much more from him, and the Kings.
Kaplan: It hasn’t been a great season thus far for goalies. In October, we heard a few goaltenders fuss over new equipment guidelines; the adjustment may be playing a small part in some league-wide struggles. As it stands now, league save percentage is at its lowest mark in a decade (.908). All of that said, there’s something off about Sergei Bobrovsky. Through 21 games, he has an .898 save percentage; his high-danger save percentage ranks 22nd among goalies who have played at least 800 minutes.
The Blue Jackets are still contending for the Metropolitan Division title, but on quite a few nights it feels like they’re winning in spite of Bobrovsky, not because of him. This all isn’t what you’d expect from one of the elite goaltenders in the NHL; since he joined Columbus in 2012, Bobrovsky has the league’s second-best save percentage (.921) and two Vezina Trophies.
There might be some lingering distraction with his uncertain contract situation next year. I also don’t think this blip will affect his value on the market this summer; some team will still pay handsomely. It just feels disappointing that his career with the Blue Jackets — he is the most decorated goalie in franchise history — could possibly end this way… with a whimper.